The Communion of Saints in the Orthodox Church
Troparia and Kontakia are types of Orthodox hymns consisting of one or more stanzas that are sung as the thematic hymn of the day, or for the life of the saint being honored. Both are part of the daily divine services, and they change each day, depending on what event or person is being commemorated. There is an historical difference between these two types of hymns,1 but on a practical level, the difference is the location in which they appear in the service. The Troparion is chanted at the end of Vespers, where it serves as the dismissal hymn, and at the beginning and the end of Matins. The Kontakion is chanted in the middle of Matins, in the Canon. Both are sung in the Divine Liturgy immediately following the Little Entrance.2
Troparia have a long history in the church. It is probably the earliest type of hymnography, other than the Psalms, dating from the first century.3 As early as the 5th century, there were already collections of troparia, such as those described in the biography of the Syrian monk and hermit Auxentios.4 Kontakia were originally verses from longer hymns that were in use in Syria by the 6th century. It is believed that Romanos the Melodist introduced the kontakia into the Liturgy.
Each day of the church year has at least one, if not multiple, troparia and kontakia. Generally, there are troparia and kontakia for the 12 major feast days, plus Pascha, for the saint or saints of the day, and eight Resurrectional Troparia according to the eight tones (octoechos).5 Those of the feast days are often well-known by the faithful. The most famous troparion is surely the joyous Paschal Troparion: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.”
Each saint has his or her own troparion and kontakion. Troparion of the Theotokos are called Theotokion, which are sung at almost every Orthodox service, not just at the Divine Liturgy. Many Orthodox Christians know the troparion of their patron saint, and each parish sings the tropar of their church’s patron saint at every Divine Liturgy. Since the saints seem to be so important, and are honored in every Divine Liturgy, multiple questions come to mind: how do we view the saints to whom we sing? What is their place in the life of the ordinary Orthodox Christian? Why is it essential that we honor them? Will we see them in the resurrection?
The distinction between the troparia and kontakia is rooted in their different historical development. Kontakia are a vestige of a longer hymn now called an “akathist”. ↩
On Sundays, it is possible that several troparia and kontakia are sung. ↩
Elena Kolyada, “A Concise Glossary of the Genres of Eastern Orthodox Hymnography,” Journal of the International Society for Orthodox Church Music, Vol. 4 (1), Section III: Miscellanea, 198–207. ↩
Unfortunately, this early collection of troparia has not been preserved. ↩
Octoechos means eight tones in Greek, and is a system used in Orthodox church music. Each week has one tone for the services, and they are cycled through every eight weeks. Saying that a certain tone will be used indicates that one of eight melodies will be used for a hymn, psalm, or verse. ↩